The more conversations patients can have with their oncologists, the more empowered and less victimized they’ll feel.
I’ve never had a normal mammogram screening. There was always something suspicious the test picked up: macrocalcifications in one breast 1 year and a cyst in the other breast the next year. Over a period of 3 years, I had six tissue biopsies, all benign for cancer. So when I flunked another mammogram screening 2 years ago, I thought, “It’s no big deal, this cyst will be benign, too.”
However, all the false alarms had been taking their toll. Several years earlier, when my surgeon told me that the tissue he removed from my right breast had looked so suspicious he was surprised when the biopsy report came back negative, I became so alarmed we started exploring the possibility of a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy.
This time the questionable-looking cyst was in my left breast. I had a tissue biopsy of the tumor and then left for a planned dental mission trip to Guatemala. When I called my husband for the test results, I wasn’t surprised when he said that the test was positive. I think I knew for years that this day would come, but I was scared.
Living as a Cancer Survivor
I was diagnosed with stage II, grade 3, invasive ductal carcinoma, and I knew immediately that I was going to be aggressive about conquering this cancer. I decided on a contralateral prophylactic mastectomy. Because the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, I also had to have four rounds of a combination regimen of doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide, plus four rounds of paclitaxel. Having to go through the chemotherapy was devastating for me.
Although my oncologist now considers me in permanent remission, I don’t really believe it. I hear stories from other survivors about their breast cancer recurrence, and I know the statistics. I don’t know why I got breast cancer—there’s no family history of the disease and I tested negative for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes—so I don’t really know what I can do to prevent a recurrence. I almost wish that the BRCA tests were positive because at least I would have an answer as to why I got cancer.
I’m on tamoxifen now, I’ve modified my diet, and I’m trying to reduce the stress in my life, but I don’t know if all that will be enough to stave off a recurrence. It’s not something I worry about every day, but the possibility never leaves my consciousness.
Life Lessons Learned
Cancer changed my life in ways I never expected. When I was a little girl, my grandfather was a cantor. I was raised singing in his synagogue, but the experience was always terrifying. In my professional life as a dental practice coach, I frequently have to speak in front of large audiences, and before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I would get very nervous before each presentation. Having cancer has taken away the intensity of these events. Now I sing with abandon during religious services, and public speaking is no longer so fearful. My perspective since my diagnosis has gotten much clearer, and nothing seems so frightening to me anymore.
I also recently published a book about my cancer experience called Hineni: Here I Am (see www.sherikay.com for more information), which I give away to cancer centers, support groups, and people I hear about who are going through tough times. It’s my way of paying it forward for all the help I received while I was going through treatment.
Participating in Treatment Decisions
I’m especially appreciative to all my doctors who gave me a voice and allowed me to participate in my treatment decisions. Having that sense of control made me feel in partnership with my medical team. I never felt like anything was being done to me, but rather, that decisions were being made based on mutual agreement.
I came armed with information about my treatment options when I met with my surgeon, so it was easy for us to engage in a conversation about the most effective course of treatment. The more conversations patients can have with their oncologists, the more empowered and less victimized they’ll feel. ■
Sheri Kay is the Chief Operating Officer and Lead Practice Coach for ACT Dental Practice Coaching in Amherst, Ohio.